No matter what Obama does, Republicans won't care and won't fold
by David Atkins
Much of the progressive consensus around the fiscal cliff deal seems to be that the deal itself isn't so bad on its face, but that the long-term negotiating consequences of the agreement are disastrous for Democrats. Krugman, Scheiber and Chait all seem to be in agreement on this point.
On the specifics of the deal, it's very easy for armchair bloggers like me to say that Democrats should simply go over the cliff. But it's much harder to look into the eyes of two million long-term unemployed people and tell them they're going to lose their lifeline because helping them was less important than holding the line on tax rates above $250,000 instead of $450,000. Absent grander negotiating principles and taking into account the fact that any deal must pass through a Republican House, trading those revenues for unemployment extensions and other progressive moves is probably a good deal.
On the long-term consequences, it's true that the President's inability to stick to a negotiating position may embolden Republicans to take future hostages. But it's also entirely unclear that Republicans wouldn't be emboldened, anyway.
There is no reason to believe that the Republicans wouldn't do everything in their power to hold the debt ceiling hostage no matter how strongly Obama and Reid had negotiated on the fiscal cliff. If the President takes the Constitutional option to avoid hostage-taking over the debt ceiling, there's no reason to believe that the Republicans wouldn't portray him as a dictatorial King George spending hard-working Americans out of their sustenance, justifying their efforts to take even more hostages in the near future out of formerly mundane government functions.
If Republicans fail to secure a yes vote on the current deal and we remain over the cliff, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that they would ever be intimidated into passing the middle-class tax cut. There is every reason, by contrast, to believe that the GOP majority would refuse to enact said tax cuts unless they got the tax cuts for the rich as well. They would then blame any negative economic impacts on the President and his Party, revel in the utter failure of the government to do its job at even a minimal level, accuse Democrats of passing the largest tax increases in history, and count on an angry public to kick tax-and-spend Democrats out of power in 2014. There is similarly little reason to believe that any similar negotiation over sequestration or any other major issue would not follow the same pattern.
This is the same Republican House that voted down John Boehner's already extremist "Plan B" because they deemed it to be too liberal. That vote was undertaken not as a negotiating position, but as a statement of real principle. As for the current deal, conservative media figures are mostly furious over it. The only reason it may pass is that many GOP members will vote for the Senate deal today instead of yesterday so that they can go home and triumphantly brag to their constituents about cutting taxes on the heroic job creators making $250K to $450K per year.
Similarly misguided are arguments that the President should simply take the case to the American public to scare the Republicans. The vast majority of the Republican Party is incapable of being scared by public opinion.
It's important to remember that we just had the most expensive election in history, in which these issues were front and center on national television every day and evening. The same tax debate that occupies the fiscal cliff negotiation occupied months of national primetime television this year. After that long debate President Obama won over 51% of the vote for a second time--the only President since Eisenhower to accomplish the feat. Democrats gained seats in the Senate when conventional wisdom just a year ago suggested Republicans would take over the Upper Chamber. And Democratic House candidates won over a million more votes nationwide than did Republican candidates. The only reason the Republicans still hold the House is outrageous gerrymandering that renders the vast majority of House Republicans immune to mainstream public opinion.
Republicans hold 234 House seats. Of those, only 15 were won by the President. There is no rational cause to believe that Republicans from districts won by the ultimate plutocrat and enemy of the "47%" Mitt Romney would be in any way intimidated by pressure from the Kenyan Socialist Anti-Christ to raise taxes on job creators or deliver more big government welfare checks to long-term unemployed parasite moochers. There is no reason to think that they wouldn't simply go on Fox News and talk radio to blame the President for all the tax increases while claiming to stand strong against a descent into a Greek deficit crisis caused by cash payments to unions and inner-city welfare recipients. And there's no reason to believe that the constituents of those representatives wouldn't love them for it and send them back to Washington with triumphant flying colors.
Many on the left live in a fantasy in which poor and middle-class white Republicans dwell in a world of false consciousness, simply failing to understand the degree to which Republican politicians betray them and their interests. The truth is far more disturbing: the people in these districts, particularly the ones who vote in Republican primaries, know precisely what their representatives are doing and what they stand for. They like it, and continue to vote for representatives even farther to the right year after year. Half of Republicans believe ACORN (read, black government workers) stole the election for Obama. 44% of Republicans either want to secede or simply aren't sure. Self-described conservatives were 14 percentage points more likely to want to a buy a gun after the Sandy Hook massacre than not.
It doesn't matter that Americans in general blame Republicans for the fiscal cliff mess far more than Democrats. What matters is that in the vast majority of Republican districts they're considered heroes for standing up to the evil President, while the few sane or vulnerable ones in the House GOP caucus have no power. So why would they compromise? Why would they buckle? Their voters don't want them to, and any retreat would only mean a potential challenge from the right. Most of them aren't the least bit afraid of a Democratic opponent in 2014.
This is what makes the poker analogy so often used to criticize the President's negotiating tactics such a weak metaphor. Obama is often said to be the worst poker player in history, consistently bluffing then folding. But the problem with that analogy is that Republican House members aren't playing with their own chips: they're playing with the country's. The Republican electoral chips are stashed safely in gerrymandered hands, and any losses over fiscal cliffs or debt ceilings only hurt the President and the nation's perception of government. There's no downside for the GOP in bluffing every time in the hopes that the President will fold. Why not? When you're playing with house money, it makes sense to go all in on every hand.
None of this is to say that the President shouldn't be a tougher and more progressive negotiator. He should be.
But no one should delude themselves into believing that if he were, the Republicans would be intimidated and stand down. Quite the contrary. We are in uncharted waters, an era unprecedented since the Civil War in which one side is willing to let the country burn down in order to achieve its goals. Californians already know this well, having been forced into perpetual fiscal crises by a bare 1/3 Republican remnant in each chamber. Even as Republicans continued to slowly lose ground and seats, the vast majority of the caucus remained entrenched, fearing only opposition from the right. They were more than happy to let the Democratic-controlled state slip into chaos in order to get their way. California Democrats were left in the ugly position of making a series of Sophie's Choices, determining only which children to shoot to appease the tiny Republican minority. In an era of perpetual and consequence-free hostage taking, the only calculation that matters is which hostages to save and which ones to shoot.
Changing that equation doesn't involve intimidating Republicans or opening the eyes of their constituents. They're not afraid, and their constituents are quite knowledgeably happy with them. Changing that equation means doing exactly what Californians found it necessary to do: changing the rules make the government more answerable to the majority. That partly involves killing the filibuster. It involves using the Constitution to bar using the debt ceiling as a hostage. It involves changing campaign finance to prevent billionaires from buying and swaying elections. It involves preventing legislators from drawing their own district lines to put real power back in the hands of voters. These and more are the sorts of structural reforms that would create real change.
But that change won't come from bully pulpit politicians intimidating Republicans from gerrymandered districts into caving on progressive priorities. A more progressive bully pulpit would be nice from a long-term framing perspective, but it wouldn't solve most of the immediate legislative problems. Republicans won't care, and they have no reason to fold.